Digitalisation is fundamentally changing our lives: from the education system to the production of goods to the way we communicate, how we organise our family lives or our leisure time. It has a massive impact on the labour market. And how does society deal with digital networking as a new normal? Which needs are being met, and which are not?

Digitalisation, i.e. the use of digital systems that can control a wide variety of processes with the help of data, enables us to be faster and more mobile. It may even bring more leisure time, as it relieves us of activities. But it also confronts us with a number of questions. Can we still expect real privacy in a world where every one of our steps generates data? Which occupations will still require human interaction, and which will be carried out by machines 20 years from now? What can governments do to ensure that everyone benefits from these major changes, and how can we ensure that the large amounts of data we generate are not being abused?

Digital as the new normal

“Digitalisation” means the conversion of analogue information into digital formats. This enables the communication between systems through a network. In the so-called "Internet of Things", devices process data generated by built-in sensors. However, this also generates information about the users. Take for example personal scales which are “online” – they are designed to help us lose weight by simultaneously creating nutrition and fitness programs. Or the concept of the smart refrigerator, which tells us when the milk runs out and documents our food consumption.

The data we generate is a sought-after commodity: our interests and hobbies, our political convictions and family situation can be read from a wide variety of sources on the Internet, depending on our behaviour. Smartphones, for example, know our daily movements. The large amounts of data enable Big Data evaluations, machine learning and artificial intelligence, among other things. What effects do these technologies have on our privacy? What does Big Data mean for anonymity? One of the tasks of technology assessment is to ask these questions. Because the right to privacy is a fundamental right.

Economic advancement through a machine-controlled world?

Automated workflows, as envisioned in the Industry 4.0 concept, offer opportunities for domestic industry. If devices communicate with each other by means of sensors, for example in the factory hall, this increases efficiency. However, "old" employment opportunities, perhaps even entire professions, could be eliminated faster than new job profiles and jobs are created. In any case, technical development requires a fundamentally different approach to work processes. Controlling, maintaining and programming machines will  become indispensable. This calls for new education programs and forms of training to meet these challenges on the labour market.

Digitisation also influences established work structures. More and more writing and computer programming is done through "click work". Crowd sourcing, i.e. the global outsourcing of work, can mean career opportunities for more highly educated workers from poorer regions. But there is also an increasing risk of exploitation and wage dumping. The ITA  asks: To what extent do new forms of work meet labour law requirements? Does the mix-up of our private and work-life endanger our autonomy?

New technology alone does not provide security

Societies today are dependent on technologies and networked systems. But what happens when we are confronted with a large-scale blackout Critical infrastructures such as hospitals, power plants or mobile phone networks could fail from one moment to the next. The ITA investigates the consequences of this dependency and derives recommendations for Austrian decision-makers in the event of a large-scale network failure.

What’s next?

Digitalisation transforms our societies – in Austria, Europe and the world. In order to deal  with this reality, we need new rules, appropriate institutions, but also new qualifications and thus investments in education and training. People should be able to define their digital environment and not be at the mercy of it. Technology assessment analyses the use of new technologies and the social phenomena they generate. The aim is to create progress that promotes both social benefits and personal freedom.

Selected projects related to Engineering Education

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